Ladybug, ladybug …

These garden heroes don’t eat like ladies

Sometimes you have to work to come up with an idea. Other times, it alights and waits to be recognized. When a ladybug landed on me recently, instead of saying, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home,” I thanked her for bringing January’s column topic. Ladybugs, or lady beetles, can be a voracious army of avenging, pest-chomping angels in the garden.

Besides, I like ladybugs. In the summer my front walk is accented with ladybug garden stakes. I have a ladybug kitchen timer, a hydroponic growing system whose dome is made to look like a ladybug and other items that bear the image or likeness of the round, red beetle with black spots.

Our neighbors like them, too; the ladybug is Ohio’s official insect. Indiana has no state insect. However, Rep. Sheila Klinker (D-Lafayette) said last spring she would back a bill to make the firefly (or lightning bug, as it’s also known here) Indiana’s state insect. An elementary school class worked with Tom Turpin, professor of entomology at Purdue University, to lobby for the bill.

In a column for Purdue Extension, Turpin said the term “lady beetle” originated in the Middle Ages. Farmers appealed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, for help with aphids feeding on their crops. The beetles showed up, had themselves a banquet and the day was saved. The grateful farmers called them Our Lady’s Beetles; today, they’re lady beetles, or ladybugs.

There are about 6,000 lady beetle species worldwide, Turpin says, with some 400 in the U.S. Lady beetles have been part of large-scale insect control programs, but home gardeners appreciate their appetite for aphids, too.

Aphids cluster on stems, buds and under leaves, and they’re not fussy about what kind of plant or crop they attack. They suck plant juices, and the shiny, sticky residue they excrete interferes with photosynthesis. The result is poor growth, curled or distorted leaves and disappointed gardeners.

You can use chemical pesticides for aphid control, but you have to consider their effect on the environment. The environment means you, your family, your pets, beneficial insects such as bees, the earth and the water that runs off from your garden. There are also organic solutions; I’ve used neem oil. There are even sticky traps you can use.

Some gardeners have found success using legions of ladybugs – troops brought in on a specific mission – for pesticide-free aphid control.

Since ladybugs don’t always respond to recruitment efforts – even those tempting posters of fat, juicy aphids in a delicate chardonnay sauce have little effect – this means buying them. Some garden centers might sell them, but I’ve only seen them for sale online.

One company sells a package of ladybugs for about $15 to cover 1,000 square feet. You release and distribute them on arrival (they already have their red superhero capes on), and they go to work, eating aphids and/or laying eggs to provide another round of aphid-eaters. The larvae are even hungrier than the adults (think how fast your fridge can be emptied by a teenager).

I’ve never tried this. There are too many questions about where the ladybugs come from, how they survive being shipped and the consequences of a mishap along the way. Shipping insects over many miles from one place and releasing them in another – and who knows whether the insects are native to either area  doesn’t feel right to me. It seems like something that could easily backfire.

University of California research has determined this form of aphid control can, in fact, be effective – with a bunch of “ifs”: if the ladybugs are properly handled and released in sufficient numbers, if there are enough aphids and if the ladybugs don’t fly away to some other home. The university even suggests other low-toxicity options, such as insecticidal soap or organic oils, may be more effective. So if you’re going to try using ladybugs for aphid control, research the source carefully and get detailed instructions.

Happy 2016, and may only good ideas land on you and your garden this year.

First appeared in the January 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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